iPhone 5S review: Same look, small screen, big potential

Is the iPhone 5S faster than other phones like the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One? Based on every benchmark we could throw at the 5S, the answer is yes. How much? That depends on the test. Linpack suggests that the iPhone 5S is a lot faster -- and about twice as fast as the iPhone 5C. Geekbench 3, which recently updated its app to allow for 64-bit testing, suggests a nearly 3x gain over the iPhone 5C's A6 processor.

The 64-bit computing potential of the iPhone 5S and its A7 chip is, at the moment, largely theoretical. It could pave the way to more computer-like experiences on our phones, or even a future merge between Mac OS X and iOS.

Apple's core apps on the 5S are 64-bit optimized, but I didn't anecdotally appreciate huge gains in most of them...except for the camera. It's hard to tell how the A7 will make the iPhone 5S better, even if you can sense the speed. The killer apps don't seem to be here yet.

Infinity Blade III on 5S: impressive. Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

Gaming and the iPhone 5S
I've been curious to try out more games that take advantage of the iPhone 5S and its clearly improved graphics capabilities. Infinity Blade III, demonstrated at Apple's event, is the first of the "5S-optimized" games that's now available. I played it through the first few levels.

The game's crisp graphics actually look good on the iPhone 5C, 5S, and iPhone 5 (running iOS 6), and so similar to the casual eye that you probably would have a hard time telling the difference -- on the iPhone's four-inch screen, at least. Certain far-off details and possibly subtle textures seemed to lurk on the 5S, but it became more of a perception test than a game experience difference-maker. But, regardless, look at the above screenshot: the game looks damn impressive.

These are early days, though: Infinity Blade III was very quickly adapted for the 5S and its 64-bit processor. Future games are bound to take better advantage. One clear difference right now is load time: on the 5S, Infinity Blade III took an average of 7 seconds to start up after quitting out and closing all multitasking windows. On the iPhone 5C, it took 1 minute 22 seconds. That's a crazy gap, and maybe the game will post an update adjusting that difference, but it also shows where 5S-optimized apps might be heading versus the 5.

CNET staff

Using downloaded gaming-benchmark apps, which are never that clear of a real-world test for a phone's abilities, the iPhone 5S still scored an impressive 13,858 using 3DMark's Ice Storm Unlimited test, compared with 5,691 on the iPhone 5C; the 5S ran the graphics tests at 101 and 61 frames per second, versus 27.1 and 19.7 seconds on the iPhone 5C. Apple claims at least 2x graphics improvement over the iPhone 5 and 5C's A6 processor, but it looks like that gap could be even wider. These numbers are better than the Samsung Galaxy S4 and any other recent Android phone we've tested, making the iPhone 5S a theoretical paper champion for mobile gaming.

Giving XCom a go: It loads quickly. CNET staff

Previous graphics-intensive games like Riptide GP2, Need for Speed Most Wanted, and XCom: Enemy Unknown loaded quickly and played well, but didn't look very different from the way they played on the iPhone 5/5C. But you could imagine great games that not only take advantage of the A7, but use forthcoming iOS 7-compatible game controller cases and future Apple TV AirPlay compatibility to make for experiences that could feel gaming-console-quality.

I think it'll be game controller accessories that will drive game developers towards more advanced console-quality games, which will find ways to take advantage of what the A7's graphics can accomplish. The A7 is compatible with OpenGL ES 3.0, an API that adds more advanced visual effects and graphics capabilities. The ceiling for what the iPhone 5S can do with games hasn't come close to being tapped.

The M7 processor: Future of motion (and the iWatch?)
There's another new processor onboard the iPhone 5S, and its presence might be a wink to iPods and wearable tech to come. The M7 consolidates the collection of motion-sensing data from the iPhone's accelerometer without taxing the A7 processor.

It could be a gateway to a new generation of improved health-tracking and motion-aware apps that work without significant battery drain, much like Bluetooth 4.0 allows for connected wearable devices like the Fitbit and Pebble Watch. Could it also be a processor that sneaks its way into a future iWatch, and even the next generation of iPods, which were conspicuously absent from Apple's September event? I'd bet solid money on it.

The M7 seems to help with power management, which could help eke more battery life out despite a faster processor. It didn't add up to something I could immediately appreciate. The new iOS 7 Maps app automatically senses whether you're driving or walking to deliver the correct presentation on the fly, but I didn't see this in effect (or couldn't tell if it was in effect) while using turn-by-turn directions to drive to the local zoo.

The Argus app imports M7 pedometer data. Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

M7 apps, and how the M7 works: Databank for your motion data
When I first reviewed the iPhone 5S, the intriguing M7 co-processor was essentially untestable, since no apps took advantage of it other than, to some small degree, the Maps app and some other semi-invisible iPhone subprocesses.

That's no longer true. Azumio updated its Argus health-tracking app to tap into the M7, and there are others that do the same. These apps show exactly what the M7 can do.

Steps, a free M7 pedometer that's also in the App Store. Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

Basically, the M7 is its own fitness tracker, buried deep inside your iPhone 5S. It never turns off, and it records your motion and activity via a three-axis accelerometer. That activity gets recorded, and goes back a full seven days.

Apps that want to take advantage of that data have to ask your permission: you toggle those settings under Privacy/Motion Tracking. But what's interesting is that any app can be off, and simply turn on later and suck up the collected data as needed. The Argus app, once I signed up, actually back-populated with my last seven days of activity. It's weird, but useful -- and since it doesn't even seem to need to be online to work, it could be handy when away on vacations.

The step-count of the M7 seems roughly equivalent to what a Misfit Shine I wore on my wrist recorded over that same span. Pedometers aren't perfect step recorders; they all have some variance based on how they turn accelerometer-collected data in "steps." But the fact that the iPhone 5S does this without sapping battery or requiring background apps to run is a huge plus. My biggest problem with most fitness gadgets and apps is forgetting to turn them on or wear them. The 5S makes the process pretty much automatic.

Does this mean the iPhone 5S is the ultimate fitness phone? In a sense, yes, since no other smartphone I know of has a true always-on dedicated tracker of this sort. But, how will the M7 work with accessories and wearables? The answer for now is it isn't clear; the M7 is meant as a supplement to other fitness tools, it seems. Obviously, most people won't be wearing an iPhone all the time when working out. But it's a far better thing to have than not have. It's just surprising that the data-collecting is always on.

One thing the iPhone 5S lacks is its own central baked-in health app, like Samsung's S Health. S Health is a comprehensive attempt to track fitness data and even fold in blood pressure and other medical readings from accessories, and provide a centralized guide and database. Apple's M7 processor is hardware that enables other software, but Apple has -- for now -- chosen to sidestep a health app of its own. Maybe such an app is waiting for a future iWatch, or other wearable products using the M7 processor. The M7's potential is very, very big, and could be a hardware disruptor in the health and wearable tech world, but only so far as other apps will take it. It is nice, however, that the M7's data-collecting mini-bank can be used by various health app ecosystems. I'm looking forward to trying apps like Nike+ Move.

Control Center: An overdue and very useful flip-up settings page. Sarah Tew/CNET

iOS 7
Both the iPhone 5C and 5S come preinstalled with iOS 7, Apple's latest version of the mobile operating system. Much like the iPhone 5 was to iPhone hardware last year, iOS 7 is a soup-to-nuts graphical and design overhaul: familiar apps have new layouts, Siri has been greatly enhanced to do more and show more, and there are even new ringtones and alert sounds to play with.

As an operating system, iOS 7 runs smoothly and seamlessly on the iPhone 5S, as you'd expect, but its aesthetics sometimes feel like a mixed bag. New display-maximizing layouts in many apps like Safari are a huge plus, but these come along with sometimes-confusing new interfaces and menus. Much like a Facebook redesign, I think many longtime users will find themselves suddenly (and hopefully temporarily) confused. Some additions, like an expanded Notifications pull-down screen, are welcome; others, like a new, confusing Calendar app that lacks appointment lists, will throw hard-core iPhone users off their game. It all grew on me after a few weeks, though.

CNET staff

iOS 7 does have its distinct advantages: AirDrop for local person-to-person wireless file sharing; crisp and excellent-sounding FaceTime audio calls, which don't use up much bandwidth and can be used to make calls over Wi-Fi for free; and also the brilliant flip-up Control Panel, which puts many necessary settings and controls at your fingertips at any time. Siri is smarter and can do more things, like turn on Bluetooth or play requested movie trailers.

CNET staff

AirDrop creates a little local area network for sharing documents, and it pings anyone you want to reach who has AirDrop turned on: a specific person, personal contacts, or even perfect strangers. It should be interesting to see how AirDrop ends up playing out in the wild.

CNET staff

iTunes Radio, a free streaming-music service similar to Pandora, comes baked into the Music app. Make-your-own artist-generated playlists had a good selection of content. The streaming is ad-supported, but iTunes Match customers get the experience ad-free. Considering it's free either way, it sounds pretty good and is nice to have, but unsurprising.

Redesigned Camera and Photo apps are part of the iOS 7 package, and both feel like big improvements. Digital zoom for video and added photo filters, plus an Instagram-esque "square" photo-crop mode, come built-in. The Photo app presents previous photos in a large timeline organized by year and location. It's a great way to sift through thousands of photos, but this level of presentation feels better-suited to a Mac version of iPhoto. That archive-style presentation would be a lot better if iCloud enabled full syncing and uploading of Mac/PC photo libraries. But, as I said before, the Photo app's elaborate presentation practically begs for a larger screen.

Apple is also offering Pages, Numbers, Keynote, iMove and iPhoto apps for free with new device purchases, a nice little package of tools that finally gives iOS devices the type of productivity software that's increasingly being bundled on competing mobile products. You can get many alternatives on the App Store for these features, some of them already free, but these universal apps also run on iPads, with more effective layouts.

Display and speakers
The 1,136x640-pixel 4-inch 326ppi Retina Display on the iPhone 5S is the same as the one on the iPhone 5. It's bright, color-accurate, and extremely responsive to touch. But, it's feeling just a tiny bit small compared with the screens on the competition. Many smartphones now boast 1,920x1,080-pixel displays, and have more screen real estate.

Now, not everyone wants a mega-large phone, and the iPhone has always had a smartly discreet feel, but more Android phones have gotten a sweet spot right with 4.3- and 4.7-inch displays, like the Moto X, which feels great and is still pretty compact. The iPhone 5S screen could be a little bit bigger.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Audio is still pumped out through the speaker grille on the right side of the Lightning connector on the bottom: it's possible to accidentally cover it up and muffle playback with just a single finger. Even though there aren't stereo speakers per se, audio playback still sounds loud enough to enjoy videos and movies without headphones...but I'd generally choose the headphones.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Antenna and wireless connectivity
The iPhone 5S has dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, just like the iPhone 5, along with Bluetooth 4.0. Apple's AirDrop technology in iOS 7 allows for local file sharing, perhaps minimizing the omission of NFC in the iPhone, but it's worth noting that NFC still isn't in any Apple device. Both the iPhone 5C and 5S also lack faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi, which has been introduced in many products including 2013 MacBook Airs and AirPort routers. It's a surprising omission on the otherwise feature-packed 5S.

Last year, the addition of LTE cellular broadband in the iPhone 5 resulted in dramatically faster Web browsing. For the most part, your experience won't change here: you'll browse about as fast in the US, but Apple has added more carrier support for international compatibility.

Trying it out anecdotally in my office, I got around 20.7Mbps download and 2.5 Mbps upload over AT&T's network at three bars of service, compared with 18.3 and 4.1 on the iPhone 5C. You shouldn't see a difference.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Call quality
Over days of average use, the iPhone 5S feels like the same call-quality experience as on the iPhone 5. I had the same average level of missed/dropped calls, and the audio seemed similar on my AT&T review model. That's no surprise: the 5S has the same fundamental design.

Call quality, if you're curious, can be heard below. It sounds about the same on an AT&T iPhone 5S as it does on an AT&T iPhone 5C.

iPhone 5S call quality sample Listen now:

FaceTime audio calls made over Wi-Fi on iOS 7 do sound a lot better and more present, and could be the start of a lot of people opting to make FaceTime phone calls versus standard calls.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Battery life
Using a video playback battery test that looped CNET content as a music video in the iOS Music app, in Airplane mode and half-brightness, the iPhone 5S lasted exactly 11 hours. On a second test running a 720p video of Toy Story 3 over and over again, the battery lasted 10 hours and 57 minutes. That's better than the iPhone 5C, which lasted 10 hours 16 minutes and 9 hours 45 minutes on two battery run tests. Both are a step above last year's iPhone 5, at least on pure video playback.

Of course, you won't be using your iPhone in Airplane mode looping nonstreaming video. Over normal full-day use, I found I could get to the end of the day with about 20 percent charge left -- unplugging around 8 a.m., and looking for an outlet around 8 p.m. I'll need to use it even more to get a better sense, but it's roughly equivalent performance to what the iPhone 5 had during my first week of using it. This isn't the iPhone-with-superpowered-battery that I sometimes dream of, but at least the newer, faster A7 processor hasn't hurt battery life at all -- in fact, it seems a little improved.

After a few more weeks of usage as my main phone, SIM-swapping from an iPhone 5 running iOS 6, I found the everyday performance pretty identical. I heavily use my iPhone in the morning: streaming music, e-mailing and Web-browsing, a handful of phone calls and some games. I use it less midafternoon. Still, like before, I found I needed a good midday top-off to make it home again. I tend to hit 50 percent battery life by lunchtime, and the red-zone 20 percent mark by around 6 p.m. It's fair for the phone's size and my intense use, but I really wish iPhone battery life would get over the hump to magical all-day-plus territory.

From left: HTC One, Samsung Galaxy S4, Moto X, iPhone 5S. CNET staff

iPhone 5S versus its competition
Versus its fiercest competition, the iPhone 5S stands on somewhat shakier ground. With Touch ID as its only compelling hardware innovation, Apple opens the door wide for Samsung (Galaxy S4), Nokia (Lumia 1020), HTC (One), and LG ( G2 ) to woo customers with an array of phones that include bigger screens, exciting design, and advanced camera offerings.

Likewise, software parity on the big-ticket items -- compared with Android especially and with Windows Phone to some extent -- means that Apple has very little to offer that's different or new beyond iOS 7's glossier look.

Customers will choose the iPhone 5S for many reasons: because they trust the brand, because they like the phone, because they're already entrenched in Apple's ecosystem -- but not because it can do a lot of important things that other phones can't. Time will tell whether Touch ID becomes a new standard in smartphone security, or if the M7 processor ushers in a new era of connected wearable tech and apps, or if 64-bit mobile computing will be a phase shift. None of those elements is currently positioned to be major difference-makers.

Bottom line: if you want a splashier, larger screen, expanded storage capabilities, or a camera with a larger lens and physical zoom, well...don't look for an iPhone.

CNET staff

Which do I get: iPhone 5S or 5C?
If you've waited for an iPhone all this time but skipped a generation or two, get the iPhone 5S. You'll appreciate the better camera and the cover-your-bases future-proofing. But, if you just want a basic and very good smartphone that works well, the iPhone 5C will do just fine. There are few, if any, critical features that it doesn't have.

CNET staff

Upgrade or wait?
Whether you believe in the future potential of the iPhone 5S' embedded offerings amounts to a leap of faith. Will Touch ID spread out to work with all sorts of apps and services? Will the M7 processor reinvent health apps on phones and context-aware mobility? Will 64-bit computing turn out to be a huge step forward in iOS history?

All you can really count on for sure with the iPhone 5S is that it has a noticeably better camera, is faster, and has better graphics punch. The rest is "future stuff." Odds are that Apple will make good on many of these claims, but it's never a guarantee. For the immediate now, the impact is incomplete. As the iPhone 5S and its apps evolve, so will this review.

The iPhone 5S feels like a "pro" phone more than ever, the iPhone equivalent of the MacBook Pro. Its features don't feel as immediately consumer-understandable. For many, the iPhone 5C will do just fine. The biggest wished-for features -- a MacBook Air-level battery life improvement and an even larger screen -- aren't on either new iPhone yet.

If you're deep in the Apple ecosystem, the 5S could be the first step toward some new directions. Its improved speed, graphics, and elements of battery efficiency make it a better phone than the iPhone 5, in case you've waited to upgrade.

But if you already have an iPhone 5, I'd say it's not a bad year to just wait.

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Sep. 20, 2013
  • Technology WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM
  • Service Provider Verizon Wireless
  • Weight 4 oz
  • Diagonal Size 4 in
  • Sensor Resolution 8 pixels
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